Attorney Theresa Newman, co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, said 81-year-old Charles Ray Finch was released Thursday from Greene Correctional Institution. He was picked up by relatives and the clinic's other co-director, attorney Jim Coleman, who were taking him to Wilson, Newman said.
Video from WRAL-TV showed Finch, dressed all in white and wearing sunglasses, leaving the prison in a wheelchair.
U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle had ordered Finch's release earlier Thursday. In January, an appeals court ruled that evidence casts doubt on Finch's murder conviction. Newman said Finch's conviction was overturned and that prosecutors have 30 days to decide whether to retry him.
The Wilson Times reports that Finch's daughter, Kay Jones Bailey, said after the hearing Thursday that she "knew the miracle was going to happen just didn't know when. It's been worth the wait. It's been worth the fight."
In 1976, Finch was sentenced to die, according to the Death Penalty Information Center . The state Supreme Court reduced his sentence to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court that the state's death penalty law unconstitutional.
In an interview earlier this week, Finch told WNCN that he forgives the person who identified him as the killer "because he didn't know what he was doing." That person had said the killer was wearing a three-quarter length jacket. Finch said a detective had him wear a coat in the police lineup - and Finch was the only one wearing a coat in that lineup.
"When I was picked up, they didn't question me or nothing. The put me there in a lineup. Straight in a lineup. And they put me in a lineup with a black leather coat on," Finch said.
Coleman told WNCN that a highlight of the evidentiary hearing came "when we were able to expose that he had lied about the lineup and he had dressed Ray in a coat, and he was the only one wearing a coat in the lineup."
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal ruled in January that it was unlikely that jurors would have convicted Finch if they had known about flaws in a police lineup and questions about key witness testimony. The three-judge panel returned the case to federal district court for a fresh look at innocence claims that the lower court previously dismissed because of technical reasons including timeliness.
The unanimous opinion said Finch succeeded in "demonstrating that the totality of the evidence, both old and new, would likely fail to convince any reasonable juror of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
Finch, who maintained his innocence, was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Richard Holloman, who was shot inside his country store on Feb. 13, 1976.
Finch's case was the first case handled by the Duke clinic.
This story has been corrected to say the appeals court ruling came in January, not last year.
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